Strengthening Durham’s ‘Beloved Community’

May. 25, 2014 @ 06:41 PM

When the Durham Bulls opened the baseball season this spring, my wife, Carlisle, and I were anxious to go to a game. On the evening of the second game, we were a few rows behind the third base dugout, cheering for the home team.

It was a glorious spring evening, and the Bulls were doing battle with the Gwinnet Braves (What a shame for a name!). We were enjoying one of those experiences that make Durham such a special place to live. The expanded and renovated stadium is remarkable.

I was taking in the crowd, enjoying the game, the whole experience, anticipating the moment when we stand together to sing the familiar, "Take me out to the ball game..."

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks -- "Ben is not here! I miss Ben!"

For more than 30 years, Benjamin F. Ward Jr. had been a regular at Bulls games. Ben died in December after a courageous battle with cancer.  I am an occasional attendee at Bulls games, while Ben had season tickets, and we would often see each other

in the area behind third base. If you did not know Ben Ward, please allow me to introduce you to a remarkable human being who enriched Durham by his presence.

In 1980, Ben was called to Duke University from Yale to teach philosophy. By 25, he had earned a Ph.D and was a dean, spoke six languages and was an accomplished musician. You would have learned none of this from Ben, because he would have occupied your conversation finding out about you and what you were doing in Durham. Ben and I met at the community kitchen (now the Urban Ministry Center) where Ben would ride his bike from Duke to help prepare a meal for the homeless before going to watch the Bulls. He did this five nights a week for years. In addition to attending Bulls games, Ben annually befriended a young player to make sure he learned about our city and felt welcomed.

I mentioned that Ben was a musician. He played in concerts and was a founding member of the a cappella group, the Pitchforks, at Duke.

He played the organ at Martin Luther King's funeral in Atlanta and accompanied Coretta Scott King on the piano on several occasions. He got great pleasure using his musical talent in the service of others.

Ben and I worked together to join congregations in Durham to sponsor an annual chili dinner on the first Sunday evening in November to benefit the homeless shelter. The fellowship hall at First Presbyterian Church was packed with politicians, members from various congregations and those from no congregation, people from the shelter and off the street, black, white, brown -- a beautiful mixture of Durham. Ben always helped prepare the chili, and while the meal was being served, he was at the piano serenading the crowd with beautiful music.

Recently, Unban Ministry of Durham announced Ward had left a bequest of $100,000 to the center. This is a wonderful legacy to insure the work Ben did so faithfully, seeing that 300 to 400 folks get a good meal every day, continues. However, I would like to suggest that this is not Ben's greatest legacy. His greatest legacy is his commitment to connect us by riding his bike from Duke to the shelter to the Bulls game to the concert hall.

Ben caught King’s vision that we were placed here to build a Beloved Community where all of God's children are welcome, safe and at home. Ben could have stayed in the friendly confines of Duke, where he had plenty to do. He showed us a better way by riding his bike to make connections, build community and bring hope. How easy it is for us to remain in our comfort zones, our congregations, our neighborhoods with folks "like us." Ben's legacy challenges us to risk reaching out and moving out to meet our neighbors, creating new space that strengthens us all.

Let me invite you to an event that will celebrate the legacy of Ben Ward to strengthen the Beloved Community in Durham. On June 1 at 4 p.m. a concert at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church will benefit Housing for New Hope and Habitat for Humanity. The concert is "There Is No Place Like Home" and there will be music that speaks to the soul.

It is a chance to gather with neighbors and affirm our commitment to Ben's dream of a Beloved Community in Durham.